“People ask if I’m a Satanist,” Ranae says. It’s after midnight, and we’re sitting in her open garage in Los Lunas, New Mexico, about twenty-five miles outside of Albuquerque. Somewhere down the block, a dog barks, and the inky sky is clotted with stars. “The pentagram is not a symbol of Satanism. It stands for air, fire, water, earth and spirit. That represents a connection to our planet.”
So how does she identify herself?
“I am a Wiccan,” Ranae says. She sips Riesling from a chalice. A small red-handled dagger hangs from the belt of her long black dress. “I am a solitary witch. It’s in my blood, it’s in my spirit, it’s what I was meant to do.”
Ranae is my first cousin, only a year and a few months older than I am. As a little girl, I used to love hanging out with my “Nae-Nae,” and we played tag, listened to 45 records in my grandmother’s basement in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania and dreamed together. She carries a picture of us as children in her wallet – she’s fair-skinned sporting a curly sandy-brown ponytail. I’m a few shades darker rocking an afro puff. We’re holding hands.
When I was a sophomore at Hampton University and Ranae lived an hour away in Richmond, we partied together, got high together and went on the prowl for men in our Spandex dresses and cheap shoes. I loved my cousin’s boldness, her ability to speak up for herself and always say what was on her mind. She attributes her assertiveness to being a Scorpio, and she wears a pendant of her astrological sign around her neck, near her pentagram tat.
After college, Ranae and I drifted apart. She got married and moved to Virginia, and I hopped a Greyhound Bus cross country to Los Angeles to “make it” as a writer. It’s been fifteen years since we’ve seen each other. She called me out of the blue several months ago, and it was as if we’d never separated. As we caught up on family and jobs and where life had taken us over the span of years, my cousin said, “I’m getting back to my pagan roots.” I had no idea what that meant. I just assumed that Nae-Nae was being Nae-Nae, a free spirit following her own path.
My mother, Lola, and I are driving cross country to spread the word about my book, Escape from Beckyville, and my cousin graciously offered to let us stay with her for a few days. When we arrived at Ranae’s doorstep after driving more than twelve hours from Vegas, to the Grand Canyon to New Mexico, my older cousin caught me in a bear hug. In her excitement, she ripped the rhinestone hoop earring out of my ear and nearly knocked me to the floor of the garage. We hugged for ten minutes, and she kissed me on the lips. Then, teary-eyed, she held me at arm’s length to get a gander at her younger cuz. We’re both heavier now. Two-strand twists have replaced my afro puffs. Ranae’s sandy-brown hair is redder and slicked back into a weave ponytail. But she’s still my Nae-Nae, and I’m still her Nikki. We walk into the house, holding hands.
After my mother and I changed into our night clothes and got settled in our rooms, Ranae showed me around the house that she shares with her two youngest children, Gabriel, 16 and Matison, 10. With pride, she shares that her 22-year-old daughter, Jasmin, recently moved into her own apartment. Outside, Ranae’s dog, Hex, barks, and I follow her out to the backyard as she feeds him. Then, she leads me back to her bedroom to catch up on fifteen years worth of memories and tell me about her new life.
“I live a charmed life,” Ranae says. A poster of Prince hangs on her wall, his songs the soundtrack of our youth. Her shelf is lined with books titled: A Solitary Witch, A Witches’ Bible, Understanding & Using Tarot and The Real Witches’ Book of Spells & Rituals. Opening up about her spiritual life, she says, “I practice alone. I’m not in a coven. As a witch, I feel like I manifest, and I conjure and I create what I want.”
When Ranae tells me that she is a Wiccan actively practicing witchcraft, I feel a tingle of remorse and fear. This is Nae-Nae, the little girl who used to wear white gloves as she accompanied our grandmother to Sunday service at Grimes African Methodist Episcopal in Phoenixville. I’m a Christian, and a scripture jumps into my mind: “Light has no fellowship with darkness.” But I fight that knee-jerk reaction. I love my cousin, and I don’t want to judge her. I just want to learn more about her life. She’s the Sula to my Nel, the outspoken rebel who left her small town, rejected the religion of her grandmother and carved her own path. The wild child wearing a black veil and carrying a wicker broom.
Most black folks I know are Christian, or Muslim or Buddhist, but I’ve never met a black Wiccan. My cousin’s maternal grandmother was Catholic, and her ex-husband’s family was Southern Baptist. Ranae tells me she cast off the stifling cloak of Christianity for a belief system that is more nurturing and matriarchal.
“People always ask: ‘Do you believe in Jesus? Do you believe in God?’ I say, ‘Jesus who?’” Ranae says, her hazel eyes twinkling. “We believe we are earth, fire, spirit. It is not for me to defend Jesus. I defend the earth, the very thing we are from. The weirdest thing to me with Christianity is if Jesus is capable of bringing back the dead and turning water into wine, is Jesus not a wizard, a magician, a witch? Only witches do that. Jesus practiced witchcraft.”
For a few minutes, my cousin and I bicker over theological matters, but I don’t want to argue with her, because I know I’ll lose. Even though I had a churchgoing grandmother, I was agnostic from my late teens until age 25, when I accepted Jesus in a small C.O.G.I.C church in San Diego. There are times when I don’t know what I am, when I wrestle with my faith like Jacob wrestling with an angel. I’m Nel to Ranae’s Sula, the responsible one, the law-abiding one, the good one. But then Sula’s defiant deathbed words ring in my ear, “How do you know it was you [who was good]? Maybe it was me.”
Ranae’s face shines as she talks about her life as a witch, and she tell me she was recently inducted as a Wiccan priestess. “I went to the Mabon. That’s a ritual celebrated in October, the beginning of the harvest. Very spiritual, very enlightening. At that camp, I met a lot of people, and my spirit was so strong, they were drawn to me,” she says. Even though my cousin is a solitary witch, New Mexico is home to a large community of Wiccans, and she has found kinship here. “At Beltane in May, which is a celebration of spring, a celebration of life, I got a chance to reunite and talk to people. I spoke and prayed. My duties are to form a circle, to bless the circle, to pray, to conjure, to invoke. I wear ceremonial clothing or regalia, a cloak and dagger. Our motto is ‘Harm no one.’ Wiccans believe in God and Goddess. You can’t have one without the other. When you follow a pagan path, you praise Goddess above all.”
On the outside looking in, Ranae is a Volvo-driving single mom with a corporate job living in a suburban community. My cousin loves hip-hop, Native American art and jewelry and romantic comedies. She is raising her children as Wiccans, and they each wear pentagram charm necklaces. She has rechristened them with pagan names – Ocean, Storm and Breeze – and they recite pagan prayers, but she doesn’t forbid them from attending a Christian worship service. She’s the fun mom, the cool mom. When she dies, she wants them to sing “Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead” at her funeral.
As Ranae models various Wiccan garb for me, her brother, Ramon, comes in the door wearing a scully and Timberlands. He gives me a hug, then looks askance at his sister’s regalia. “Ranae, what you got on?” he asks, plopping down on the couch. “Ray-Ray” and I also hung pretty tough when I was in undergrad at Hampton, hitting up the clubs and having intense discussions about race and politics until the wee hours of the morning. I remember my lanky green-eyed cousin explaining his new Muslim faith to me with enthusiasm, how he shunned pork and went to the mosque and loved reading his Qur’an. Now when I ask him what he believes, he shrugs. “I believe in divine intervention. I believe in Jesus. I believe there are aliens and other life forms out there. God created the universe and got things in motion and moved on to other projects.”
I have fun reminiscing with my cousins, drinking wine and taking pictures. Even though Ranae and I have followed different roads since our childhood days in Phoenixville, she will always be my bodacious big cousin, the one I looked up to, who loved to dance and sing, who encouraged my dreams.
“I’m a spiritual dreamer,” Ranae says, sipping from her chalice. My cousin says she’s a medium who believes the dead talk to her. During our conversation in the garage, she says she feels the presence of our grandfather, who died when I was 11. Maybe the spirit of Pop-Pop, as he was affectionately called, surrounds us, but I don’t feel it. All I feel is the warm desert air on my skin and the heavy New Mexico darkness that blankets the street. But who am I to dismiss Ranae’s beliefs? My cousin is a witch. Even though I joke that the broom leaning against the wall of the garage is her second car, I won’t ever think less of her for being a Wiccan. No matter the divergent religious paths we walk, our spirits will always hold hands.
“Being pagan, Wiccan, a witch is about educating myself, enlightening myself and bettering myself,” Ranae says. Her voice is soft, but her eyes are smiling. “Most pagans just want to see you happy. Be peaceful, be whole, be true and harm no one.”